The Most Dangerous Belief: An Interview with Noam Chomsky

HOLDER: The main body of the following questions were posed by younger folks and the age range of the questioners is roughly 12 through 20. Most of the young people with whom we spoke included in their questions the following: “What is the meaning of life?”

CHOMSKY: The meaning of life is what you make of it. Life does not have any meaning apart from that, for a human, a dog, a bacterium, or anything else. It is up to you what the meaning of your life is. So, it is partially under your control.

If someone were to say “Life is just a bowl of cherries?”

If that is the way you want to look at life, fine. If you decide your life is maximization of goods, then that is the meaning of life. We can have sympathy for you, but that is what it is. If you decide that your life is friendship, love, mutual aid, mutual support, a community of people who try to increase their own and other people’s happiness and welfare, then that is the meaning of life. But there is no external force that decides.

Of the perhaps 30 or 40 young people to whom we posed the question, “If you could ask a question of someone who is considered one of the smartest people in the world, what would you ask?” Most of them asked that question—so, what do you think is driving the need to answer that question about the meaning of life?

It is probably the sense of either unwillingness or inability to take your life in your own hands. If you see yourself as a creature of external forces, buffeted by a market, government, parental authority, whatever it may be, then you search for something elsewhere that will tell you what the meaning of your life is. If you have developed (it is a value judgment) what I think of as a healthy respect for yourself and others, you will design the meaning of your life.

Of course, you can’t do it completely. You may want to be a world champion high jumper, let us say, and you may not be able to achieve that, but you can shape your life to a substantial extent and that way give it meaning, in fact, discover the meaning as you proceed—you don’t know in advance. It is after you develop relationships that you discover their value.

Do you think the key would be in the relationship itself? For example, in some kind of collective meaning?

Unless you are a hermit. If a person decides I’m going to be a hermit, I’ll get myself a piece of land in Montana, I’ll farm it, I’ll live by myself, I won’t pay any attention to other human beings, I’ll have no form of communication with others, okay, that is the meaning of your life. I know people who have become hermits. I met one climbing a mountain once. The guy was living in a mountain hut and he just wanted to be alone. That is a choice you can have. For most people, life means warm, supportive social relationships. But you don’t know it in advance.

Take, say, marriage. Suppose you get married when you are 20. You don’t really know what the meaning of that relationship is. You may be discovering it 60 years later. As relationships mature, circumstances change, you have children—which adds a new dimension of meaning to your life that you can’t imagine. Or maybe it becomes sour. But these are things that develop through life and at each stage. If you do have the sense of self-respect and autonomy and concern for others you can, within the limits that external factors provide, determine and discover the meaning of your life. Discovery is not a small part of it.

This is a question from a 12-year-old. “What do you think happens when people die?”

I believe the body deteriorates and that is the end of the person.

And from the same questioner: “If one is not a believer in religion, is it worth challenging others beliefs in things like reincarnation and an afterlife?”

I don’t think there is any simple answer to that. You have to ask yourself whether the religious beliefs that you don’t accept have a significance in other people’s lives that would reduce the value of their lives if those beliefs were taken away from them. If that is the case, then it would be supreme arrogance to challenge their beliefs.

If, on the other hand, you think the beliefs are basically a burden, that they would be freer, more creative, more independent individuals without those irrational beliefs (“irrational” in that they are not based on evidence and argument), well, then, it makes sense to discuss the beliefs with them. It is not just religious beliefs, but any other beliefs as well.

So these beliefs are a mitigating factor to the pitfalls of life?

For many people, their religious beliefs are kind of like a foundation for their survival and existence. I know people like that. So, a poor immigrant woman who has lived here (I’m thinking of somebody) for 50 years and worked her way up to the point where she had children, managed to get them to school—she lived a very hard life in the ghettoes, her husband had all kinds of problems and ended up in the army—but she created a kind of life for herself and she is an Evangelical Christian. A large part of her life is the community of believers that she is part of. So, for example, they have prayer sessions in the evenings where they visit people who are ill or have prayers for others they know who are ill or maybe disturbed, etc. And that enriches their lives and may even enrich the lives of the people they are praying with. Why should anyone try to take that away from them by telling them there isn’t going to be any Second Coming? Or, suppose a mother would love to believe that her dying child is not gone forever, but that she will see him again in heaven. Do you have to give her lectures in epistemology?

There are plenty of people we call “religious,” who belong to religious communities, but don’t have these beliefs. If you go to a New England church in some middle class, professional, academic community, the people might not have any more beliefs than I do, but being part of that community is important for them, meeting on Sunday morning, going through the rituals. There are families who are held together by ceremonies—you come for this ceremony, for that ceremony, your life is built around it. You don’t have to have any particular beliefs for that to function.

That is even true of ultra-orthodox people. I can think of my grandfather, for example, who was an ultra-orthodox Jew. If I had asked him whether he believed in God, I don’t think he would have known what I was talking about. Religion was your life, the practices you carried out, your associations, where you spent your time, etc. You did say prayers which had words like “I believe,” but it did not matter much whether you questioned them or didn’t question them; they were just among the other practices.

The rituals served as a…

…as a structure of life. It is not for me. I don’t want it, but if other people want it, is it my job to try to take it away from them? If it has harmful consequences for the person or for others, like if under the banner of religious belief you launch a crusade, let us say, well that is a different matter. But that is true of any belief, secular beliefs too. Actually, one of the most dangerous religious beliefs, maybe the most dangerous belief, is the secular faith in the sanctity and power of the state. We see that all the time.

Take what is called “American exceptionalism,” the notion that we are unique in history; there is the fundamental benevolence of our leaders; they may make mistakes, but always with good intentions. That is one of the most dangerous beliefs. It is a religious belief and has no foundation in fact, and it is one of the most dangerous that exists. In fact, secular religions have been extremely dangerous. Nazism, for example, was a secular religion.

Would you place market fundamentalism in that category?

Yes, it is. The belief in markets is a religious belief. Rationally, we know of all kinds of fundamental, what are called, “inefficiencies” in markets. But the belief that they can solve everything and that everything can have a value determined by the market, I think you can regard that as a religious belief. The other day I happened to be reading a careful, interesting account of the state of British higher education. The government is a kind of market-oriented government and they came out with an official paper, a “White Paper” saying that it is not the responsibility of the state to support any institution that can’t survive in the market. So, if Oxford is teaching philosophy, the arts, Greek history, medieval history, and so on, and they can’t sell it on the market, why should they be supported? Because life consists only of what you can sell in the market and get back, nothing else. That is a real pathology.

The author of the article says, plausibly, that the government is trying to turn first rate universities into third rate commercial enterprises and also cheapen existence, weakens the society, turns it into some kind of a pathological creature, and people may adapt to it and decide, “that is the way I want to live” but then it is a sad society. It is just like societies of religious fundamentalists where people are really committed to the fundamentalist beliefs, to their own detriment and the harm of others. It can happen, and, in fact, is happening.

Given the long, ugly, exploitative, destructive and the pathological nature of markets, why the continued perpetuation and belief? It is getting to the point where it might destroy the human future.

First of all, the beliefs are nuanced. The advocates of markets typically don’t want them for themselves, they want them for others. Let’s say you are the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase and you may advocate markets, for others, but you don’t want them for yourself. You want the government insurance policy that enables you to survive. And, as soon as you get in trouble, you run, cap in hand, to the taxpayer and say “save me.” In fact, the bailouts are the least of it.

There is a recent IMF study that tries to estimate where the profits of the big banks come from, and they conclude that they come almost entirely from the government insurance policy, not the bailouts, but the access to cheap credit, the higher credit-ratings because the agencies know you are going to be saved, and the chance to take risky and highly profitable transactions because you are not in danger if it breaks down. And, of course, what is called “systemic risk,” the impact on others, isn’t part of a market interaction, which is—suppose you sell me a car. In a market structure you are supposed to ask what is the best deal for you and I am supposed to ask what is the best deal for me. We are not supposed to ask what is the best deal for him [someone outside the immediate transaction], but there is an effect on him: there is another car on the road; there is more pollution; there are more traffic accidents, and that multiplies over the society. It can end up being a huge cost. Those are called externalities.

If the externalities are internalized, that is, if we had to pay for those consequences, probably only the super rich could ever drive a car. And there is no way to estimate those consequences. It would be an impossible calculation. How do you figure out what the cost is of the fact that five years from now he will have an accident, or get lung cancer or something?  There is no possible way to do it.

There are what people call “libertarian economists” (a strange notion) who think you can calculate all of these things and life could be run by some sort of huge computer that makes every action you carry out a market transaction. Gary Becker, of the University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate, received a Nobel Prize for things like this. Marriage, he argued, is an economic transaction. You measure the quality of the person, the possible gain you will get from being with that person, the loss that will come along because of conflicts, and somehow out of that estimate you decide to get married. It is literally pathological.

There are economists of that nature who argue against the existence of roads because why should I pay for a road in the other part of town that I am never going to use. That undercuts my liberty, my freedom. So, if you believe in freedom you are against that. Well then, how do you get roads? If I want to drive from my house to MIT, I build a road. Then comes the question: “How do I keep other people from using it?” Easy, I hire an army. Suppose they hire a bigger army. I hire a still bigger army. That way we are all free. It is as if some fiction writer imagined a concept of hell, it would be a market society.  

There are actually people who think like this?

This is in the literature. In fact, it is believed abstractly because when push comes to shove, the advocates want markets for others. The whole history of imperialism is like that. So, for example, Britain advocated markets not for itself, but for its colonies. That way, what are called “liberal rules” were imposed on India and it de-industrialized, it collapsed, it became a poor impoverished society. England didn’t follow them.

A striking example is the United States. When the United States became independent, it got advice from the leading economist of the day, Adam Smith, on what kind of policies it should follow. And the advice was not unlike what the economists on the World Bank give to poor countries today. Adam Smith’s advice to the colonies was that they should do what they are good at and pursue what was later called their “comparative advantage.” So, they were good at producing agricultural products, catching fish, exporting furs, and so on, so they should do those things. And they shouldn’t manufacture anything because manufactured goods were done much better in England, which was true because it was more advanced.

So, import British manufactured goods, export raw materials. And, crucially, Smith urged, don’t make an attempt to monopolize some of the valuable resources that you have. The most valuable resource of that period was cotton. It was kind of like oil in the 20th century, it fueled the early industrial revolution with textiles. So that is “sound economics,” then and now.

Countries like, say, Egypt and India had to follow “sound economics” because Britain imposed it on them. The United States was free of that, so it did exactly the opposite. It raised tariffs and became the leader in protectionism, practically until the Second World War, to keep out superior British goods. It developed a textile industry, then a steel industry, then everything that follows from it like railroads, cars, and so on, keeping out superior British products. And it did not concentrate on exporting primary products, but built an industrial society. And it made a major effort to monopolize its resources. Cotton again was crucial and that required slaves, so slavery was a major factor in the economy.

In fact, slavery was one of the main reasons for the revolution. By the 1770s, Britain was beginning to pass laws that outlawed slavery. One famous decision by Lord Mansfield declared slavery to be so odious that it could not be tolerated in the British Isles. They tolerated it in their colonies, but that is another story. Pretty soon they went beyond that.

This was a slave-owning society, the leaders were mostly slaveowners, and they saw the writing on the wall. They knew that if the colonies stayed within English jurisdiction and under British law, pretty soon slavery might be outlawed. It was probably a major factor in the revolution. And, incidentally, we have not escaped that legacy to this day.

The Civil War is still being fought in the United States. Just take a look at the red and blue states in the elections—that is the Civil War. There are a lot of consequences to this. The legacy of slavery is far from gone. There was a very conscious effort to gain a monopoly of cotton. The Jacksonian presidents, in the 1840s—Tyler, Polk, and so on—talked about the importance of gaining a monopoly on cotton to bring England to our feet. England was the powerful state at the time, the United States was restricted in its expansion so it couldn’t conquer Cuba or Canada because Britain was too strong. But, if we could just monopolize cotton, we could bring them to our feet. And that was a large part of the motive for the conquest of about half of Mexico—to try to monopolize cotton.

It is kind of striking that what the U.S. actually did was what Saddam Hussein was accused of doing. When Iraq invaded Kuwait,  the propaganda was “he is trying to monopolize the energy of the world and bring us to his feet,” which was, of course, a total fantasy. But in the case of the United States, it was not a fantasy. They didn’t manage to totally monopolize cotton, but did a good bit of it.

Anyhow, to go back to the original story, the U.S., like the CEO of J. P. Morgan Chase, didn’t want to have the burden of “sound economics” for ourselves. It is much too harmful. But we’ll impose it on others. Then we have a theory which says that is a good thing. If you are beating someone over the head, it is nice to develop a theory which says “I’m right and just and highly moral.” If a patriarchal father decides he wants to beat his children it is always for their own good. And the same is true at almost any level. We invade and destroy Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqis.

In the case of the market, it is buttressed by a kind of theory. There are theories, which under certain abstract conditions would lead to improvement in the overall welfare as measured by the number of commodities. If you follow these principles, Adam Smith was right. If the American colonies had just exported primary resources and imported British goods, then by some measure everyone would be, on average, better off, but we would be India and they would be Britain.

Another question from a 12-year-old: Why is there so much inequality in the U.S.? Is it possible to create a society free of inequality?

There has always been inequality. It is not a necessity. The contemporary inequality in the United States is crafted. If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s, not that far back, it was a much more equal society. It was highly unequal, but nothing like now. These were the periods of the greatest growth in American history, probably world history, very rapid growth, but it was egalitarian. The lowest quintile gained about as much as the upper quintile, of course, proportionally, so the rich got richer, but it was relatively distributed. In the 1970s that began to change  as a result of specific policies.

Actually, there is a nice study of it by the Economic Policy Institute called “Failure by Design” and it was about how the design is crucial. There were always alternatives. Policies were designed in the late 1970s, accelerated by Reagan and Thatcher, and it became the kind of neoliberal world order designed in such a way as to create a society oriented towards market principles rather than mutual aid and solidarity—so bank bailouts began under Reagan, the economy became much more financialized, and they didn’t do what banks did in the past.

A bank used to be a place where you put your extra cash and they would lend it to somebody who wants to buy a car or whatever it may be. Starting in the 1970s, banks became involved in complex and risky investments. All kinds of exotic devices developed. The very rapid flow of speculative capital, radically increased. There was an acceleration of shifting production to places where workers could be more easily exploited, where there weren’t environmental conditions—northern Mexico, southeastern China, etc.

Those processes did start to concentrate wealth. When you concentrate wealth you concentrate political power. We may pretend to be a democracy, but we are really a plutocracy. The more wealth you have the more political power you have. But as you concentrate wealth, you concentrate political power and that political power leads to legislation which concentrates wealth further. You have a vicious cycle going on and you end up with the situation we have now, the most extreme inequality in our history.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was substantial growth, but it was distributed. In the 1980s and 1990s and the last decade there is growth, but it goes almost entirely into the pockets of a tiny fraction of the population, a fraction of 1 percent gets a huge amount. All of that escalates and you end up with the kind of inequality we have.

There is no reason really why there should be any inequlities. Actually, Adam Smith argued that under conditions of perfect liberty there would be perfect equality. It is not a great argument, but he regarded that as a desideratum, a good thing (it is one of the reasons for the economic arrangements he was discussing). Well, that is probably not right, but you could move towards some form of equality.

The question then is, What do you mean by equality? For example, suppose I need a wheelchair and you are healthy. Should we have equal access to wheelchairs? A moral person wouldn’t say that. But that is inequality. And that generalizes very broadly. People have different needs, different goals. Suppose I have two kids and one of them wants to become a concert pianist devoting his entire life to it and it means everything to him, and the other doesn’t care that much, he has other interests.

Well, I might, reasonably and morally, decide to expend more resources for the concert pianist—special training, camps, schools, and so on because it just means more to his life. Well, that is a form of inequality. Is it necessarily bad? I don’t think so. People have different wishes, different needs, different ways of fulfilling themselves, and they should have the opportunities to do so.

The example you used of the concert pianist child. If you had a society where everyone was guaranteed a shot at pursuing their goals, so long as it is not harmful to society, if you want to become a world class serial killer, no. But other things that have a positive goal, wouldn’t that be the society we are trying to achieve?

Yes, it should. If a society has no surplus at all, like everybody has to slave to eat, then the question doesn’t arise. If the society has some surplus, some capacity to allow people to cultivate other concerns, needs, interests,  sure they should all have the opportunity to do so. And these will differ very much. For example, if one person decides (I am thinking of someone) I want to live the life of a third world woman and work for a relief organization in a poor country, fine, that is an opportunity. And that is the way this person happens to fulfill herself. Somebody else won’t be satisfied with life unless they are a concert pianist, maybe living in poverty, they don’t really care they just want to be a concert pianist. Okay, that should be an opportunity that can be fulfilled. If somebody wants to be a research scientist, a heart doctor, a carpenter who builds really good houses, fine. There are all kinds of ways in which human beings can find satisfaction in life, exercise their creative capacities, develop themselves, and so on.

It just occurred to me that what I proposed might be considered by some folks a form of libertarianism, which has many dark aspects.

It depends what you mean. “Libertarianism” is a very strange word. In the United States it means something quite different from the tradition. In the United States, libertarian means you are free to act as you choose. Traditional libertarianism is opposed to domination, hierarchy, and authority. American libertarianism is not concerned with these at all. In fact, its policies, whether the advocates recognize it or not, are designed to create a very extreme form of authority and domination in the hands of unaccountable institutions, private capital. 

Suppose I am out of work and you need people to work in your factory and you are willing to offer me ten cents a day and if I don’t have that, I’ll starve. Okay, we could make a free contract in which we both benefit, in which I get 10 cents a day and you get my labor, which is worth maybe $100 a day and you enrich yourself and I barely survive. That is called a “free contract.” People enter into it out of their own choice, they aren’t coerced. Well, that is American libertarianism and its consequences are, first of all, destructive, but it will also lead quickly to extreme forms of domination and control in unaccountable hands.

American libertarianism is opposed to the state because that interferes with liberty. But traditional libertarianism is opposed to any infringement on liberty—state, private, or whatever it may be.

The tale about roads I mentioned earlier comes from an American libertarian economist. It is pathological in my view and quite opposed to the conceptions of liberty and freedom that were developed during the Enlightenment, which were opposed to domination, not to the state as such. There are certain circumstances, like our societies, where the state is the only protector against predatory private power—like laws for health and safety in the workplace. An employer who is guided by the principal of “maximize my own wealth and power” has no reason to institute safety rules. If they do, it is out of their own good will, but that is out of the market system. So, if the rules are going to be enforced it is going to have to be by community decision.

Incidentally, all of this interrelates with market ideology. You learn in school, or wherever you study, that markets increase opportunities and choices—you’ve got all these commodities out there and you can pick them. It is true to a limited extent, but as markets also restrict opportunities. For example, I am sitting here and I have to get home tonight. The market does offer choices, a Ford or a Toyota. But suppose I want to go by subway—the market does not offer that choice because that is a collective activity. So, markets restrict your choices to individual actions, separate from other people, and, typically, in conflict with other people. It even harms the individual by restricting choices that are better for them that they would prefer, but it also leads to a kind of pathological social order in which people are trying to beat each other down and raise themselves instead of helping everyone.

The pathological social order leads into the next question posed by older high school students. They ask, “If capitalism is the root cause of so many of the problems in the world, for example, climate change, exploitation of working people, growing inequality, military aggression, should schools be teaching people to overthrow capitalism and, if so, what kind of learning/teaching might that entail?”

I am sort of sympathetic to that view, but I would put it a little differently. Rather than teach children to overthrow capitalism, I think a decent educational program could point out just what the questioners say. Let’s take climate change, for example, which is going to wipe us out. It is an almost predictable consequence of capitalist structures, market structures that don’t take into account externalities. That should be taught and children should come to understand it and then they should be in a position to decide whether they want to overthrow the system or not. But that is a little different than teaching them to overthrow the system. That is indoctrination. And the same on other issues. Children should be encouraged to explore, create, work out answers that make sense to them, and I think the answers, in this case, would be like the questioners. But that is for the individual inquiring person to discover.

Do you think young people need guidelines for what is really a call for revolutionary transformations? Do they need guidelines that are not simply self-discovered?

Nothing is ever done that is completely self-discovered. There are always guidelines. For example, if you decide to raise this question, “Will capitalism destroy the environment?” that is already imposing some structure on the inquiry. So, yes, there ought to be structured inquiry. First of all, the guidelines should not be rigid. If a child or adult decides to question the guidelines, that is possible too. There is always going to be some set of presuppositions, some framework, but the ideal would be to try to encourage independence of thought and education, collective education, individual education within those guidelines, while leaving open the possibility of challenging it.

Actually, that is the way science is taught at advanced levels. You are not taught: “Do anything.” You are taught basic physics, you are expected to think it through, determine for yourself whether it makes sense, maybe challenge it, and challenges are not ruled out by any means. In fact, that is how progress is made.

Victor Jara, the Chilean singer—we recently commemorated his murder by Pinochet’s henchmen—in talking about music, he said that in the United States there is protest music, but in Latin America there are revolutionary songs. He thought that we need revolutionary songs more than we need protest music. And that gets to a question a student asked, “Do you think popular music can be a tool in revolutionary change?”

Sure. It was in Latin America. But you can’t just say “Let’s have revolutionary songs.” You have to have revolutionary social movements. They will create revolutionary songs, art, theater, and so on. It comes from the movements themselves. What he is talking about is revolutionary movements in Latin America which created the culture of revolution. It is not mechanical, there can be influences the other way, but I think that is the dominant force.

From a high school student: Do you think comedy and humor can be useful in politicizing people in radical directions?

Sure, it’s done all the time. Way back in history, the court jester was the one person who was given some latitude to satirize and criticize—and it probably opened minds to an extent. It certainly does now, all the time. Questioning authority is often done effectively through ridicule, mockery, lampooning, satire, that is a very effective device, and a perfectly legitimate one.

How would criticizing, lampooning, etc., move a person from being a liberal to a radical?

Take Mark Twain, one of the great satirists. He once said, “We should thank God for the three precious gifts that he [sic] gave us: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the sense not to exercise either of them.” As soon as you think what that means, it inspires you to do something. That is what good satire is.

We were talking before the interview about what we call “Chomsky zingers”—sarcastic barbs. Do you consciously bring humor or satire into your public presentations?

Sometimes. For example, I gave a talk the other day in which I was asking about whether capitalism and democracy are compatible—an old question. I wanted to talk about something a little different, whether democracy and existing capitalist democracy are compatible. So, really existing capitalist democracy, for short is “RECD,” which can be pronounced “wrecked.” For the rest of the time I talked about it just as “wrecked.” That was conscious.

From a group of high school students: Is there a method of thinking or understanding that you use that would be useful for young people in helping make better sense of the world in which we are living?

I am asked a lot of questions like that and I haven’t the slightest idea. As far as I know it is just simple honest virtues, qualities we all have if we decide to exercise them. It is kind of like Mark Twain’s quip. We have the capacities, we have the qualities, we have the opportunities, and we decide to exercise them or not. You can work hard, you can have an open mind, you can have a critical intelligence, we all have it if we want to exercise it. You can question authority and demand that it legitimate itself; or you can accept passively what comes along and repeat it. Those are choices. We all have the capacity to exercise them. It is up to us whether we do or not.

How important is collective work in this enterprise?

Enormously important. Just walk down the halls of this department or the research institution, where you see people working together. Sometimes somebody will be working alone, but the way you create your own ideas is by trying them out and interacting with others who respond, qualify, change, and challenge you to think it through. That is what a good classroom situation ought to be like.

I’ll give an example again. One of the best math courses I ever took as a student was a graduate course in advanced algebra. The professor was a very good mathematician. In a standard class he would come into the classroom, erase the blackboard, write something down, stare at it, then turn to the class and ask, “Do you think that’s a theorem?” Then the rest of the class was our effort to discover whether it was a theorem or not. People would have ideas about how you might try to prove it, somebody else had another idea. The professor kind of guided it, so if it went off track he would suggest something else, but you really discovered what it is like to prove something. He could have written down the proof and we all would have copied it and just repeated it on the test, but this was a totally different experience. If you learn how to discover and create, then that is what good teaching ought to be, from kindergarten on up.

That segues into a question about the expression “education reform.” A student asks, “Our schooling is mostly about testing and preparation for tests. It is rather boring. What can we do as young people to fight back and create a more meaningful education system?”

The idea of teaching to tests is a technique for creating people to serve in the Marine Corps or the equivalent form of conformity-to-orders in general society. It is not the way to create or allow the self-creation, of creative individuals living in a functioning democratic society.

If you go back to the 18th century Enlightenment, these topics were discussed in a modern form for the first time. There were alternative models created of what education should be like. There was imagery used for them that was telling. One image was thinking of teaching as pouring a liquid into a vessel and then the vessel regurgitates it. That is teaching to the test. We all know that is a pretty leaky vessel and you don’t learn anything. You can take a course and study and memorize and pass the test and a week later you don’t remember what the course was about. The other model, which is the recommended one, is thinking of education as laying out a string along which the student pursues or follows it in his or her own way, maybe modifying the string. So, meaning some kind of structure, but then you investigate and you learn how to inquire and create. That is a big difference.

There are ways of designing programs like that which have been done at the kindergarten level up to the graduate student level. That is real education. Teaching to tests, just like the questioner said, deadens the mind, turns people into passive automata. You’re told what to do, you do it, and you forget it because it went into your ear and out your hand and never stayed in your brain. It is a very destructive form of education as far as the value of an individual life is concerned—or the society. Society will be harmed by that. That is why education at a research institution like MIT is always on the second model. Not a lot of attention is paid to tests except for evaluation of what’s gone wrong, has the material been mastered, and so on.

One of the reforms they are imposing across the country is the linking of student test scores to teacher evaluations.

It is a way of demeaning teachers and undermining their self-confidence, turning them into people whose activity is basically of limited value so there is no respect for them. One thing that has been discovered, and is sort of obvious when you think about it, is that when teachers are respected and their own creativity and abilities are respected, you get a much better educational outcome. You can see that yourself. If you are given a position as teacher where you are a janitor and here is what you do and you do it and that is the end, you are not going to do a creative job of teaching. Teaching is a difficult task and  children are different. You have to respond to them differently, just like raising children is a difficult task and a creative task. There is no formula you can impose on every single one. You have to invent it as you go along. But that means you have self-respect and you have community respect and you are not demeaned and you are not forced to face evaluation, which already is demeaning, but especially by a measure like this.

Take that mosquito experiment. It might be that in a short-term test, children, or high school students, in this case, who went through that particular segment of the educational system, might not do as well on an exam the next day as somebody who just memorized it  because they are learning something that the teaching-to-the-test kids did not learn, how to discover, learning the joy of discovery, the fun of doing it, the importance of doing it, the ability to do it next time for the next problem. If you just study for the test you may be able to regurgitate what you heard, but you don’t know how to go onto the next problem or see any reason to. In fact, you end up seeing no point to education at all.

Why humiliate a whole population of people who are playing such a crucial role in the lives of young people? It seems a grotesque form of humiliation of teachers.

It is purposeful. It is very effective. It is part of the whole effort, whether it is explicitly conscious or just a reflection of broader attitudes (you could argue), but there is a major effort to destroy the public school system and to destroy the concept of a public institution that guarantees a decent education to every child. Rather, the cost of education should be transferred to the person who is supposed to benefit from it. It is like raising tuition in college. It is not that it is a common good that should be cultivated for everyone as a social responsibility, but rather the individual has to pay for what they get and if they can’t pay for it, they shouldn’t have it. It is part of the general effort to impose a kind of business model on the whole society.

Well, how do you destroy an educational system, public education? If you want to privatize something, whatever it is, the railroads, the post office, the schools ensure that it is not going to work, maybe defunding it, or humiliating the participants so they can’t do a good job. And pretty soon it won’t be working and parents won’t like it because the children aren’t learning anything, so they will be willing to send their kids to private schools, or charter schools which are kind of fake private schools. And pretty soon you have dismantled the public system.

Why dismantle the public system? I think there are deep reasons for that. It is similar to eliminating Social Security and mass transportation. All of these things are based on a  principle that you care about other people. Take public education. At my age, I don’t have kids in school. I don’t have grandchildren in school. So, why should I pay taxes so that somebody could go to school? Okay, if you are an American libertarian, the answer should be “you shouldn’t, it is an imposition on my freedom if I am taxed so the kid across the street can go to school. So, let’s get rid of it and privatize it so the kid’s parents have to pay and if they can’t pay, too bad for the kid, and so on.”

It is the same with Social Security. Take some disabled widow across town who does not have food to eat. “Why do I have to pay taxes for it? I’m not responsible for it. Maybe she married the wrong guy or they lost their money somehow. Whatever it may be, it is her problem, so why me?” So, let’s get rid of Social Security, let’s get rid of public schools, let’s get rid of mass transportation and let everyone sit in traffic jams, all in the pursuit of liberty. There won’t be any imposition on my personal individual right to do what I want. Maybe a libertarian could say, Okay, I can decide I want to be a nice guy, I’ll give to charity so the kid can go to school.

An alternative is that it is understood as a community responsibility that people have rights. That is the way humans have lived for 95 percent of their history. Market economies were imposed by force along with the inhuman ideology that lies behind them. Ultimately, when people are involved in them, they accommodate to them and they change and you become the kind of pathological individual who can read Ayn Rand and not be disgusted. But that is a sad outcome for society. And I think humiliating teachers is just one part of this.

Under what moral authority does the U.S. operate when carrying out international aggression. For example, illegal aggression and occupation against the people of Iraq that has killed, by some estimates, one million people?

The answer to that was given in an interesting way by Secretary of State Kerry in a different situation, but using the same principle. Recently, U.S. Special Forces invaded Libya, kidnapped a man, Abu Anas al-Liby, in the streets of Tripoli, the capital of Libya, took him away, put him on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean for a couple of weeks of interrogation without trial and then sent him back to the country. Kerry happened to be in Indonesia. At a press conference he was asked, “Was this legal? Is it legal to invade another country, kidnap somebody, and take them away?” And he answered, straight out, “Yes, it is legal; it is in accord with our laws.” Which is correct. U.S. law, even Supreme Court rulings, give the U.S. government the right to invade some other country, kidnap somebody, and take them away.

Laws and moral principles have validity if they are generalizable, otherwise not. So, an obvious question, which was not asked by the press when they reported it, should have been, “Does Cuba have the right to invade Florida, kidnap Luis Posada Carriles, a major terrorist responsible for all kinds of terrorist acts against Cuba, kidnap him and take him off to the Caribbean, interrogate him for a couple of weeks on a ship and then send him off to a Cuban prison? Do they have the right?” Well, we know the answer to that. But we, the U.S., have the right and nobody questions it. And that is the answer to your question. We have the right because we say “we own the world.”

We weren’t aware that U.S. law supersedes international law.

Oh, it does. Here it does. Not by law, but by practice—in fact, even in principle. Back in 1946, the World Court was established, part of the UN system. It was mostly a U.S. initiative. The World Court, the way it functions, is it can act in a case if the countries involved accept its jurisdiction, and not if they don’t. If a country does not accept the Court’s jurisdiction, the Court can’t do anything. When the court was established, the U.S. added a condition. It said, we accept the jurisdiction of the Court except if it involves an international treaty—we cannot be charged under any international treaty. That means the UN Charter, the foundation of modern international law, the Organization of American States, their Charter, (which bans any intervention under any circumstances into another state in the hemisphere. Of course, we don’t live up to that). We cannot be charged with those things. And that continued. Take the Genocide Convention. The U.S. finally signed it after about 40 years, but with the condition that it was inapplicable to us. And that was upheld by the courts in a case that was brought by Yugoslavia. And, in general, the U.S. is immune to law. It is pretty well known.

The main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, has an article on the United States and international treaties and conventions and it points out what everyone ought to know, that the U.S. does not accept them. It doesn’t sign them, rarely signs them. So, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are only two countries that haven’t signed it, Somalia, which doesn’t have a government, and the United States which is immune to international law.

The article in Foreign Affairs criticizes it on pragmatic grounds. It says that because the United States has isolated itself in the world and refuses to accept international laws and conventions and treaties, the rest of the world doesn’t just stop. It is going on, creating a network of laws and conventions that govern international society, but that exclude the United States. So, they say, leaders of other countries don’t even wait to hear what the United States has to say because the U.S. isn’t going to sign it anyway. We are excluding ourselves from international society, which will indeed sooner or later be harmful, it already is.One of the major events in the United States in the post-Second World War era, late 1940s, was that China became independent. It separated itself from the U.S.-dominated world system. Notice how that is described in the United States, universally, as “the loss of China.” And it had a big impact on American society. It is the basis of McCarthyism. Who was responsible for the loss of China? The State Department was decimated by the elimination of the Asia experts because they were responsible for the loss of China. And it goes on for years and into the present. It is a big issue. The tacit assumption is “we own the world” and if somebody becomes independent, we’ve lost it. What is striking is that this is never questioned. It is never even noticed. Like Kerry’s comment. It is legal because our law says it is fine.

From high school students. Do you see a difference between knowledge and wisdom? As young people we are often told that wisdom comes with age. Have you noticed a growth in wisdom as time has passed?

I think children, even young children, can have very wise comments and insights. There is certainly a difference between knowledge and wisdom. For example, you have knowledge if you can repeat facts and they are accurate, but wisdom means understanding, perception, and ability to apply your knowledge in new situations and so on. That is very different. Theoretically it is supposed to come with age, but I think the evidence is not so clear.


John Holder ( works at the University of Hartford; Doug Morris works at Eastern New Mexico University (